Chapter 16

I returned from the brief trip to Kaesong feeling slightly rejuvenated. I noticed that now that the trees were all in leaf and the flowers were in bloom and the balconies of the flats were decked out with potted plants, Pyongyang had shed the vast drab council-estate aura that had enveloped it through the winter and was again the attractive city I had seen when I first arrived.

I noticed that the workers in the factory had turned the lower beds alongside the buildings into rivers of colourful flowers. “I see the workers here are treating their workplace like a palace,” I remarked to Comrade U No.

“I think,” he said, “you will find most of the factories in North Korea like this one. The working people in my country take a pride in their jobs.”

Perhaps it is pride, as well as ignorance, that keeps them going. They certainly seemed to be bearing up well as the two-hundred-day lunacy approached the halfway mark. Once I was going by underground from the Taesong Gang hotel up to the Koryo at about nine-thirty one evening when I saw the party secretary from the factory coming up the escalator as I was going down. His tall shoulders were stooped. His face was pale and drawn. His eyes were downcast and vacant. The next morning when I drew the curtains at half past seven, there he was, bright as a button, out in the yard, already mingling with the workers and demonstrating the prescribed Juche popular work style and method with all his customary energy and enthusiasm.

While the workers next door were doing their best to make their workplace a palace by planting pretty flowers round the yard, the staff of the Ansan Chodasso, including the interpreters and the young womenwho cleaned our rooms and waited at table, were out of doors displaying the true Juche spirit of self-reliance by cementing over part of the compound themselves under the direction of the manageress. If the spirit was commendable, the results were disappointing. After heavy rain a pool of water inches deep gathered in the middle where the concrete had not set evenly.

Around this time a regular visitor to Pyongyang said to me, “I have never known a people who work so hard or achieve so little. It doesn’t matter whether it’s handicrafts or bridges. Everything they make is rubbish.”

As the two-hundred-day campaign crept towards the halfway mark, I too embarked on my own more modest hundred-day campaign. My campaign was to hang on to the last vestiges of sanity for another hundred days and nights in Pyongyang. It may not sound like much, but every monotonous day had to be ground out hour by hour, minute by minute. My work was as pointless and uncongenial as ever. The food was no more to my liking. Indeed the quality of the meat seemed to be deteriorating. Michael told me there were meat shortages in the city’s restaurants. After the brief flowering of international culture during the Spring Festival month, the television was back to the routine grind of propaganda and banal feature films in an alien tongue.

One night I decided to stay in and remain reasonably sober for a change. Unfortunately the night I chose was May 17th. May 17th is the anniversary of the notorious Kwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980. On that date the people of the city of Kwangju took to the streets in protest against the government’s imposition of martial law. Because of the scale of the protest, the authorities sent in troops to restore order. According to official figures, between the 17th and 23rd of May 191 people were killed in the crackdown. The opposition claims the death toll was nearer to 2,000. Predictably the North Korean propaganda harps on about 5,000 dead and 14,000 injured. To commemorate this tragic event, on May 17th a mass rally of students was staged in Kim Il Sung Stadium and broadcast later that evening on both channels. I watched in fascination for a while as the next generation of Juche high priests ranted out the clichs in emulation of their elders with rapt, fanatic expressions on their faces. There was the usual cued-in ritual chanting of slogans from shrill-voiced groups of female students. After half an hour I had had as much as I could take. I fled to the Potanggang to get drunk again.

While their parents were all out working their butts off to make the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the republic a great festival of victory, in May the schoolchidren of Pyongyang took to the streets in uniform red track suits to start practising skipping, marching, gymnastics et cetera, sometimes until eight o’clock at night, in preparation for the mass game scheduled to crown the September 9th festivities.

Koreans used to tell me the mass game was an original invention of the DPRK. The Russians told me it was a Soviet invention. They hold one every year in Pyongyang on one or other of the festival occasions. In 1987 they held on April 15th in honour of the president’s seventy-fifth birthday. In 1988 they held on September 9th. Consequently I never saw one, which is rather a pity because everyone assured me they are quite something.

The mass game is, as one would expect, a celebration of the beauty and grace that mass collectivity can attain, a grandiose spectacle in which no individual is allowed to shine but each makes his anonymous contribution. By all accounts, even spectators who regard the concept of the thing as rather vulgar cannot avoid being impressed and strongly moved. The mass game is performed by children, thousands of them. The average number of participants in a mass game is 50,000. It is doubtful if many mentally and physically normal children in the DPRK go through school without participating in at least one mass game, although it was once whispered to me that the children of high officials sometimes use their parents’ influence in order to get out of them.

In Pyongyang the mass games have traditionally been held in the 100,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium. From now on they will probably be staged in the new 150,000 capacity Runguado Stadium. Mass games last for an average two hours. They consist of a series of changing pictures. A background image is formed by children who occupy the whole of one side of the stands and create successive vast mosaics by holding up different sheets of coloured paper on cue. Music is piped through loudspeakers. Out on the pitch, there is marching, gymnastics, dancing, all choreographed  la Busby Berkeley, but on a scale Berkeley could only dream about. Apparently each game has a unified theme running through it although there is no attempt at narrative.

All the interpreters I asked said they had taken part in a mass game while at school. Most of them said the preparations were hard work but the experience had been worth it. I cannot imagine English children and teenagers giving up most of their free time for months on end to rehearse the same mechanical actions over and over and over again until they all move as one with the precision and synchronisation of guardsmen on parade.

On the last Sunday in May I was taken on an outing along with Holmer, Astrid and Linda to visit the West Sea Barrage at the port of Nampo forty kilometres away. The West Sea Barrage is an eight-kilometre long dam that stretches across the mouth of the Taedong River, where it flows into the West Sea of Korea – known to the rest of the world as the Yellow Sea. It contains three locks of various sizes. The largest can admit the biggest of ocean-going vessels into Nampo Harbour.

The barrage has afforded the Koreans a number of advantages, of which two are of prime importance. It facilitates sea traffic in and out of Nampo, North Korea’s principal West Sea port, negating the effects of the dramatic tide fluctuations that have frequently left vessels stranded, and thereby also preventing flooding inland. In 1969 the country suffered horrific flood damage as far inland as Pyongyang as a result of violent tides forcing their way up the Taedong River.

The barrage, which measures thirty metres in height from the sea bed, was built over five years from 1981 to 1986 by three divisions of the Korean People’s Army without any significant foreign technical assistance.* (*It is said that the dear leader took a close personal interest in this project but, as it has actually been built, the engineers evidently paid little heed to his advice. For, according to the June 1988 edition of Korea Today, “He advised that in order to finish the barrage construction in a brief span of time they should disregard establish practice and formulae and carry out the designing, the surveying of the sea bed, and the construction, simultaneously.”) For a third world country it constitutes a very impressive engineering achievement. Being North Korea it is a flawed achievement. Whether because the coffer dam was not built high enough to take sufficient impact of the heavy waves, or because they quite simply built it like everything else in too much of a tearing hurry, it has required continuous renovations and repairs virtually since the day it was completed. Along the top of it run a road and a railway. The road is normally open but because parts of the track are always dug up to allow repairs to the dam’s structure, the only time a train has ever run across it was on the day it was formally inaugurated by the president.

In itself it was certainly worth a visit, but the real pleasure of the outing lay in doing the sort of thing that at home one takes for granted, i.e. getting in a car on a fine Sunday morning and going somewhere. It was a glorious feeling just to leave Pyongyang behind for a few hours and to be out in the countryside where everyone was hard at work in the fields doing the rice transplanting. The rice transplanting season at the end of May/beginning of June is a crucial time for North Korea’s agriculture. There are not enough peasants to do all the work and so the whole of the urban population, factory workers and office workers, students and even schoolchidren, are motivated to lend assistance to the countryside. They are transported each day by bus, train, or on the backs of lorries, except for those assigned to help in the more remote areas who may have to live for up to a fortnight in spartan village dormitories. Even our privileged staff at the Ansan Chodasso had to take it in turns to go out and help in the fields for a day. By all accounts it is gruelling work, but, being North Koreans, many of the city-dwellers quite enjoy the outing and the change of scenery.

As we drew near to the barrage, we found that the road was under repair. In any sensible country, when a road needs repair, one carriageway is repaired at a time so that the other is left open for traffic. Here, for a stretch of a hundred yards, they had dug up both carriageways simultaneously, so that all the traffic had to edge its way over broken rocks; a brief journey that probably put as much stress on the vehicles’ suspensions as 10,000 miles of normal motoring. It was while we were edging our bone-shattering way across that I noticed something quite disturbing. Among the toiling gang of female road workers shifting heavy stones were a couple of toothless, grey-haired grandmothers. North Korea is such a strange country that the possibility that these old ladies had not been mobilised for this work but had volunteered for it out of patriotism cannot be discounted. Having said that, they did not look as if they were enjoying themselves. I was used to seeing stooped old women in Pyongyang doing manual jobs like sweeping the roads, but this was something else again, and left a bitter, angry taste in the mouth. The following week Michael made the same journey with Simone, and reported seeing a young woman working there with an infant strapped to her back.

At the barrage we were met by a guide who delivered a set eulogy about it, peppered with the usual attributions to the great and the dear leaders. Holmer excelled himself as a linguist by giving a simultaneous translation from Korean into English, so that both Astrid and myself could follow it. Our guide, however, was not given the opportunity to run through her full agenda. We had an agenda of our own. Holmer had made several previous trips to the barrage while interpreting for delegations and knew there was a bathing beach underneath the lighthouse, and so we had all brought our swimming costumes. If our guide felt at all offended by our cutting short our inspection of the engineering wonder of the modern world in order to go swimming, she was too polite to let it show.

It was not a particularly hot day and the sea had yet to warm up after the long winter but, inspired by little Linda’s fearless example, we all braced ourselves and took the plunge. It was too cold to stay in for long but the air was clear, the water was clean, and for a few delightful minutes we felt as free as anywhere in the world.